I’d never heard of the Coast Guard Vice-Admiral who’s replacing Helluva Job Brownie in running the Katrina clean-up, but I already know some very important things: he has no strong or open partisan affiliation, he’s got years of progressively responsible experience, and he achieved his rank in a fiercely competitive meritocracy. He may not be a genius, but he works and plays well with others and has a record of getting things done competently.
That is: He’s not a hack; he’s not a crook; and he’s not a total loser.
How do I know those things? Because that’s what “Vice-Admiral” means. High-ranking military officers are career public servants (“bureaucrats,” if you don’t happen to like one of them). Careerists have a very different profile from political appointees (the folks the Washington lifers call “tourists”).
An outstanding feature of the U.S. federal government compared with, for example, (to take the opposite extreme) the government of the United Kingdom is that the tourists are much more numerous and powerful, compared to the bureaucrats, in Washington than in Whitehall.
When a new President takes office, he or she has some 3000 openly political slots to fill, not counting the practice of arranging appointments to nominally “merit system” jobs for friends, friends-of-friends, and ideological soulmates. The comparable number in the UK is less than 100.
A Cabinet Minister in Britain has a younger politician (who is also a Member of Parliament) as a sidekick under the title of Parliamentary Private Secretary. And that’s it. Every other soul in the Ministry is a civil servant, right up to the Permanent Undersecretary who acts as Chief Operating Officer. [But see the update for some corrections from Steve Teles.]
In an American cabinet agency, there’s a Secretary, a Deputy Secretary, an Undersecretary, a bunch of Assistant Secretaries, and a larger bunch of Deputy Assistant Secretaries. EVERYONE down to the Assistant Secretary level (that’s the fourth level down) serves at the pleasure of the President, as do about of the fifth-level Deputy Assistants. It’s not unheard of for someone to rise from the career service into one of the political jobs, but in doing so that person ceases to be a career employee and becomes a member of the Administration.
In my brief career as a civil servant, I worked with, and for, some spectacularly good Presidential appointees from both parties. I also worked with, and for, some spectacularly good career civil servants. (I also worked with some careerists who had retired in place and worked under Rudy Giuliani, who had the largest ego and the smallest soul of any man I ever met.) The two groups of people generally liked and respected each another (except, again, for Giuliani, who hated the career folks and was hated by them with about equal intensity).
But I was in DoJ, a better-than-average agency and at a better time than this.
Compared to the British system, the American system is in some ways more democratic. After all, the civil service is an unelected group of people drawn disproportionately from privileged social strata. So giving the political appointees a greater role means increasing the power of people chosen by the electorate compared to people chosen first by the admissions committees of fancy universities and then by one another.
And if the political appointees are chosen for their skill rather than merely for their partisan loyalty, campaign contributions, and friends on Capitol Hill, they can bring fresh ideas and energy into agencies that might otherwise become too comfortable and set in their ways. (The danger of group-think and collective ass-covering is especially great where, as in the military and most law enforcement agencies, there is no mid-career entry from outside. The other great danger of long-service bureaucracies — mediocrity — is tempered to a substantial extent by an “up-or-out rule,” under which only those who continue to be promoted can remain employed. The academic tenure system is one version of “up or out,” though the military system is much more thorough and relentless.)
Still, whatever the virtues of political appointment, a patronage-heavy system such as ours means that more decisions get made by people who don’t know what they’re doing, and in some cases by people whose bosses and subordinates don’t know what they’re doing, either.
The military is the big exception to the rule that all the top jobs are reserved for political appointees. Since Goldwater-Nichols, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a career officer, is nearly as powerful as the Secretary of Defense. Even before that, the service chiefs were much more significant figures than the service secretaries, and a four-star general wouldn’t regard the offer of a job as an Assistant Secretary as a promotion. (It would also involve a significant pay cut; the brass, especially since the Reagan era, is much better paid than the civilian bureaucracy; by constrast, no career civil servant can make more than an Assistant Secretary gets, which is the same as a Congressman gets.)
There’s no magic about career service, of course; the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI have only one political appointee each, and neither outfit delivers especially stellar performance. The problem is finding the right mix, and the right relationship, between the two classes of public servants, and making sure that the “merit” promotion system doesn’t turn into the survival of the dullest and that the political appointment system doesn’t degenerate into hackery.
But our current arrangment has a basic problem: as long as career civil servants (outside the military) know that they can never rise to truly policy-making positions, it will be hard to recruit seriously excellent people — which usually, though not always, means seriously ambitious people — into the civil service. That, in turn, limits the level of competence and imagination we can expect in the people who do most of the actual work of governing this country.
Yes, I know the only thing duller than policy wonkery is management wonkery. But if you think this stuff doesn’t matter, I encourage you to imitate our Beloved Leader and look down the next time your airplane flies over New Orleans.
Update Steve Teles reminds me that in addition to the Minister and his P.P.S., each major department junior ministers who are also M.P.’s. In addition, he notes:
There has been a substantial growth in the No.10 apparatus over the last couple of decades, and there has been a small but probably growing trend to appoint people to the House of Lords precisely in order to put them into ministerial positions (a person I used to know, Andrew Adonis, has just been appointed this way–he was previously in #10).
Still considerably below the US figures, but the UK is probably tending slightly in the U.S. direction.”
To which I say, “And quite right, too.” The old Whitehall system was excessively bureaucrat-run: “Yes, Minister” was a charicature, but a recognizable one. So having a few more tourists around is no bad thing. (That’s especially so since the U.K. political appointees aren’t really tourists on the Joe Allbaugh/Michael Brown model, but rather career politicians accountable to their own constituencies.)
Similarly, the U.S. ought to be moving somewhat in the U.K. direction by making more room at the top for outstanding career civil servants.